Global UAS Trends and Drivers – An Industry Perspective
With unmanned systems becoming ever more ubiquitous on the battlefield, the question of where unmanned systems and accompanying technologies such as autonomy are headed is in the limelight. With more than two decades of experience working on leading unmanned programs, we at Textron Systems would like to offer some perspective on these issues.
First, to better understand where the field is headed, it is instructive to note some important current trends. The pace of unmanned systems utilization on the battlefield increased significantly in the post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the point that today, having at least rudimentary unmanned capability is quickly becoming commoditized. Not only has the number and types of unmanned systems available exploded, so too has the number of countries in possession of both the hardware and the ability to produce them indigenously. Growth of the nascent commercial unmanned systems market has added to this proliferation, as has government emphasis on greater use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) solutions.
But while this commoditization has occurred in some niches at the platform level — particularly among smaller airborne vehicles — threats from other major powers employing anti-access area-denial (A2AD) military strategies require far more capable solutions than simply having hordes of cheap drones.
So, in this environment, how will U.S. and allied forces retain their advantage? To meet those needs, critical capabilities and technologies such as the ability to dynamically swarm, conduct automatic target recognition, possess on-board autonomy and artificial intelligence, and be capable of interoperable communications will be necessary.
First, future platforms — manned or unmanned — will increasingly need better collaboration between the sensors and payloads they carry and other U.S. forces. This growing level of collaboration and autonomy is already happening, and the pace of technological progress to enable it will quicken. Driven by advances in onboard computing power, smaller and less power-intensive sensors and advanced algorithms, tomorrow’s unmanned systems will be able to better communicate among themselves and make their own decisions on basic functions like navigation to enable dynamic swarming and identification of areas of interest during intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
Next, systems that can seamlessly operate and communicate with other military platforms across domains will be the most successful. Gone are the days when largely mission-specific platforms dominated the force composition. With platforms needing to be highly capable to meet A2AD threats, a mission-specific approach will simply be unaffordable. Instead, increasingly we are seeing platforms that are able to act as highly capable but also flexible ’trucks’ that can easily swap payloads designed for specific missions, while the overall platform is able to serve many needs.
Multi-domain abilities for conducting command and control (C2) and other tasks will also be vital as technologies move from remote control type operations to more of a “man monitoring the loop” concept. Technological progress in providing secure communications and a level of onboard artificial intelligence are necessary enablers, as will be data fusion technologies. Initial versions of these multi-domain C2 solutions for unmanned systems are already here. For example, we at Textron Systems have years of experience providing the Universal Ground Control Station and OSRVT™ that allow soldiers in the foxhole to access overhead sensor video from unmanned aircraft. Our Synturian® family of multi-domain control and collaboration technologies takes the concept to a new level, allowing a single user to simultaneously operate multiple vehicles and sensors, including the ability to control numerous types of aircraft and other multi-domain unmanned systems from different manufacturers.
Today, technologies such as advanced power generation, autonomy, UAS designed from the start with improved maneuverability and designed to deploy with lighter footprints are all areas in which Textron Systems is investing to make the unmanned systems of the tomorrow remain able to meet U.S. and allied needs. Done smartly, the application of technologies such as autonomy can be better integrated into unmanned systems to enable improved navigation, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and other tasks while leaving a man in the loop for the use of weapons.
The commercial sector’s work on areas like self-driving cars and unmanned taxis is at the forefront of artificial intelligence for tasks such as navigation, and can rightly be leveraged by defense users. But while the military can leverage such commercial developments, there are and will remain specific applications and needs such as specialized cyber hardening that are unique to the defense marketplace. For these, Textron Systems with its heritage in platforms across land, sea and air that already apply such cross-domain concepts, is a leader today and into the future.
For example, Textron Systems is currently working on next-generation unmanned aircraft that will significantly lower the total ownership cost to our customers through addressing the largest cost drivers: increasing reliability, increasing ease of maintainability, and reducing the footprint of personnel needed to operate and maintain the system.
Recent reforms by the U.S Department of Defense (DoD) are encouraging in setting the stage for improvements in such innovation. The ongoing move away from only long-term programs of record to the embrace of the “try, buy, and decide” model, as well as greater uses of DoD supported prototyping, is helping to fast-track promising new technologies. Companies such as Textron Systems can now match our own internal research and development funding to move that innovation along. Together, company investments like those being made at Textron Systems, along with government practices that encourage innovation, will ensure the U.S. and its allies remain at the forefront of unmanned technologies.